The theme running through all our readings today couldn’t be more obvious if it tried. What do they have in common? It is glory, shining, dazzling, brilliant glory. Glory seen in the radiance of Moses’ face, which shone so brightly that he had to wear a veil, otherwise people were too terrified to come near him. Paul sees that same glory in the followers of Jesus, whose lives have been lit up as the Spirit of God has set them free. And of course the Gospel tells the story of the Transfiguration, when Jesus was seen in shining glory talking to Elijah and Moses, the story we have in our window at the back of church
So, it’s all about glory. Or is it?
I think if we were reading Matthew’s version of this story, or Mark’s, that might be the case, but Luke’s version is slightly, subtly different, and that makes me wonder if all that glory isn’t actually a bit of a distraction. Matthew, Mark and Luke are often called the Synoptic Gospels – synoptic meaning literally “with the same eye”. They tell many of the same stories, often in very similar ways. But that means that where there are differences between them, those differences probably matter.
So what about this story? All three Gospels tell us that Jesus went up the mountain with Peter, James and John. All three describe this scene in which Jesus talks with Elijah and Moses, two figures from ancient Israelite history who people thought would appear again when the Messiah came. But Luke tells us something extra. He tells us what it was that they were talking about. And that casts this story in a rather different light.
They are talking, Luke tells us, about Jesus’ “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” What that actually means is that they were talking about his death. The word Luke uses to refer to that death – his “departure” – sounds like a euphemism. Why doesn’t he say death if he means death? But actually it is carefully chosen, because in Greek the word is “exodos”, the same word used to describe that great escape from slavery in Egypt, when Moses defied Pharaoh and led the Hebrew slaves out across the desert to a new life in the Promised Land of Israel.
This passage, in all three Gospels, marks a turning point, the moment when it starts to become clear that Jesus’ ministry is going to end on a cross, not on a throne. He has started talking to his disciples about the fact that following him isn’t going to lead to power but to death, but they don’t want to hear it and can’t take it in. I am sure he struggles with it himself – who wouldn’t? But those who challenged the forces of oppression in Jesus’ world knew they were likely to end up paying with their lives, as is often still the case today, so it isn’t exactly rocket science to see how things will turn out for him. What matters is what that will mean and how it will be interpreted. If he dies does that mean he has failed? If he dies does that mean that God was never with him, that he was deluded? If he dies does that make all that he has said pointless and foolish, all that talk of love and of justice for the poor and the marginalised? Is might right? Does brute force always have the last word? It isn’t just the pain and fear of death which troubles him and his followers, but the sense that if he’s wrong that pain and fear will have been for nothing.
This conversation with Elijah and with Moses, that leader of the first exodus, sets Jesus’ death in a different context, though, and gives us a long view, if we are able to see it, a view which stretches beyond the dark clouds of the trouble that is coming. Far from being a disaster, it’s going to be the beginning of a new life, in a new kingdom, a new sort of Promised Land, the kingdom of God, here and now, for everyone who wants to be part of it.
Like that first exodus, it will come at a price, wreathed in death and pain. It won’t be an easy journey for those who take it; it will involve profound change and challenge. But the suffering and the death won’t be in vain, and that matters.
Peter, James and John still don’t get it, of course. Luke tells us they are “weighed down with sleep” when all this takes place, and I don’t think it is just physical tiredness that he means. These were men who had their eyes half-closed, who weren’t really paying attention, who were just drifting off, or just coming to. They don’t want to think about pain and death, so they don’t. When they are startled back to attention all they decide to notice is the glory, that shining, beautiful light. Peter’s knee-jerk reaction to jump up and get building is absolutely irrelevant to the topic Jesus is discussing. In fact it is a wilful distraction from it. Build some shelters and hold onto this moment – never mind the darkness that lurks around the corner!
It is easy to judge poor Peter – always the fall guy when anyone has to get it wrong in the Gospels – but we have the gift of hindsight and he doesn’t. We know the cross will be followed by the resurrection. Peter, James, and John don’t have that advantage. They have to live this story as it unfolds. Talk of death is, for them, talk of failure. What kind of Messiah dies a humiliating death on a cross between two criminals? No wonder they all desert Jesus when the moment comes. No wonder they don’t even want to think about the possibility at this point. We probably wouldn’t have done any better. So instead of taking the theological high ground and criticising the disciples, perhaps we should be wondering what this story says to us about ourselves, and the times we prefer to focus on the shiny bits of life and ignore the darkness in the hopes it will just go away.
We all prefer success, happiness, health, strength. We all want things to go well in our lives. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. The problem comes when we put success on a pedestal and worship it, letting it become the source of our security and worth. For those who manage to find success, it can be very tempting to sacrifice anything and anyone in order to keep it. It is a hungry and demanding idol. Perhaps the downfall of Chris Huhne this week is a timely warning of the danger of being so hooked on maintaining a successful appearance that we are prepared to pay any price to do so.
The worship of success, though, hits hardest at those for whom it seems like a distant dream, those who feel they are constantly failing at the game of life. Despite all the rhetoric about strivers and skivers, the truth is that life is far more of a struggle for some than for others – it’s not a level playing field. You can’t overcome all obstacles by hard work and determination. If you are hampered by disability, poverty, or lack of family support, you will always have to work twice as hard to keep your head above water as those who have the advantage of starting with health, wealth and stability. And however hard you work you might still find that success eludes you. We often overestimate our ability to control our lives – it is comforting to think we have that power. Usually, though, more depends on being in the right place at the right time than we’d like to think. Life deals out random blows which can fell the strongest looking person, and when that happens, often the hardest thing to cope with isn’t whatever it is that has gone wrong, but the sense of shame that overshadows us, brought on by the judging voices without and within, which label us as failures.
What do we do at that point, when it’s all gone wrong? Do we give up? Do we opt, like Peter, to ignore the darkness and try to cling to whatever thin veneer of glitter we can come up with to distract us from it? It is an understandable reaction, but it isn’t one which will help much in the end. What is there, is there. The cross lies ahead for Jesus – the only way forward leads through it if he is to stand by those he has come to serve and to save.
For us too, acknowledging the sorrows and the darkness is the only way to real healing. This week we will be marking Ash Wednesday with a quiet and reflective service here as we enter the season of Lent. I’ll be offering, as usual, the symbol of the imposition of ashes, drawing a cross of ash on our foreheads as a reminder of our own frailty, fallibility and mortality. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return” I’ll say, quoting the words of God to Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. It sounds like a rather gloomy service, but actually it is one of the most profoundly joyful in the year, it seems to me, because it tells us that we don’t have to pretend, we don’t have to deny the truth. Whatever glory there is in life – and it is real and lovely – the darkness and the failure are real too, and God is just as much with us in them as he is in the success. God doesn’t just love us when things are going well, but all the time. When we are in the dark, he doesn’t just stand afar off in some distant blaze of light telling us to try to make our own way to him. He comes to us where we are, in the pain and the failure that seems to crush us, and goes through it with us in his son. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, he leads us in a new exodus, to a new land in which it doesn’t matter where we are in the league tables of life; all that counts is that we know that we are loved, and, being loved, are set free to love others in our turn.